Media in chains: The cost of speaking truth to power in South Asia

On World Press Freedom Day, stories from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal look at what it means to be a journalist there.
Published May 3, 2021

Target on their backs

By Naziha Syed Ali in Sukkur

Honest reporting in Pakistan draws the ire of powerful quarters and some journalists pay the ultimate price.

Filthy curses, and the gleam of a pistol. That is about all the barber says he knows of the attack on Ajay Lalwani as the journalist sat getting a shave from him on the evening of March 17 in Saleh Pat, Sukkur district. The street outside was in darkness because of a power cut; a couple of emergency bulbs provided the only light inside. “I heard someone order me to move to the back of my shop,” recalls Khalil Ahmed the barber. Then came the gunshots. Two bullet holes can be seen in the barber’s chair where Ajay sat. Witnesses saw two men flee from the scene on a motorbike. Three more individuals waiting in a car outside sped away while firing in the air. “The thana is within walking distance, but the cops took half an hour to arrive,” says a source within the police.

Ajay (right) with a friend.
Ajay (right) with a friend.

Bleeding profusely, Ajay — a reporter for Royal News television and daily Puchhano — was rushed to hospital but died the next day. The 27-year-old’s untimely demise removed from the scene a ‘troublesome’ journalist who raised difficult questions with local authorities.

Today is World Press Freedom Day, and the experiences of journalists in upper Sindh alone illustrate the price that media practitioners in Pakistan can expect to pay if they dare speak truth to power. Threats, beatings, trumped up criminal charges, even murder.

The International Federation of Journalists has ranked Pakistan the fifth most dangerous place for the practice of journalism, with 138 media persons here having lost their lives in the line of duty between 1990 and 2020. In 2021 alone, three journalists — including Ajay — have been murdered and one, Absar Alam, injured in an attempted assassination. Media professionals all across the country are targeted with impunity by militants, political actors, and security agencies.

The barber shop in Saleh Pat where Ajay was attacked.
The barber shop in Saleh Pat where Ajay was attacked.

As per Freedom Network Pakistan’s latest report on press freedom, at least 148 instances of attacks and violations against journalists and media practitioners occurred between May 3, 2020 and April 20, 2021 across the country. Among them were six murders and seven attempted assassinations. After Islamabad, Sindh proved the most dangerous part of the country for media persons, with 26 per cent of the overall cases.

“Journalism has been taken hostage here,” says Imdad Phulpoto, Sukkur district bureau chief for Abb Takk News. He is among the few journalists willing to be quoted by name for this story. “We leave home not knowing whether we’ll see our families again.”

In upper Sindh, an oppressive feudal system brooks no dissent, and the police, far from enforcing the law, act as the waderas’ personal force.

Mr Phulpoto experienced this first-hand four years ago when he was working with Samaa TV. Early morning on Jan 5, 2017, a police contingent raided his home and took him to a thana. There they beat him black and blue, later transporting him to a feudal’s autaq, where he was again thrashed mercilessly. “They threatened to kill me in a fake encounter along with two dacoits they said were in their custody,” recalls the journalist. “The only thing that saved me was that, as I found out later, Samaa was constantly running reports about my abduction.”

Imdad Phulpoto, Abb Takk bureau chief in Sukkur.
Imdad Phulpoto, Abb Takk bureau chief in Sukkur.

He has no doubt why he was subjected to this ordeal. “I had filed several reports at that time about [a senior PPP leader] having built his house on land reserved for a school, and also reported that his lands in Saleh Pat were being irrigated by tube wells running on government electricity.” Threats had been hurled at him several times, he says, for pursuing these stories.

At least 25 FIRs on fake grounds have been filed against various journalists in Sukkur over the past 18 months alone. The charges include serious offences such as waging war against Pakistan, kidnapping for ransom, dacoity, rioting and rape; some charges have clauses under the Anti Terrorism Act appended to them.

A senior police official concedes that this is indeed the case, and sometimes violence is committed. In his view, “Journalists tend to become very personal in their interactions with powerful people here, and cross the lines of journalistic ethics. Sometimes feudal elements take offence and retaliate.”

According to the Freedom Network Pakistan’s earlier cited report, the top three categories of violations against journalists are: embroiling them in legal cases, verbal threats of murder or other dire consequences, and their arrest/detention by law enforcement agencies.

Unlike other parts of the country where news desks at television channels receive calls from ‘unknown numbers’, intelligence agencies do not often interact with journalists to that extent in upper Sindh. Most media persons anyway desist from reporting ‘sensitive’ news. “There is an ongoing protest for missing persons outside the Larkana press club,” says a reporter. “It never finds a mention anywhere.” On the other hand, when intelligence personnel announce that certain members of Sindhi separatist groups have renounced violence — or colloquially speaking, become “new Musalmans” — they expect coverage, and get it.

The PPP’s top bosses are known to have a stake in several TV channels, which adds to the pressure. In September 2019, one such channel ran the video of a young dog bite victim in Shikarpur dying in his mother’s arms for lack of the rabies vaccine. The clip went viral and brought down the wrath of the Sindh government on the reporter. His colleague told Dawn, “The channel was ordered not to run any more reports about dog bite incidents, and they’ve had to comply.”

More recently, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, the government was distributing bars of soap in Larkana district as part of a campaign to encourage handwashing. When a television channel exposed the fact that the soap was past its expiry date, a top PPP leader demanded that the owners fire the reporter.

Living dangerously is thus an occupational hazard for journalists who challenge the status quo. That said, there are systemic problems within Pakistani media itself that those who care about the profession and its relevance for democracy must urgently address. Consider, for example, that the all-powerful wadera-politicians have another proxy — the so-called ‘sahafi-wadera’. “He’s a beneficiary of these political waderas, whose role is to control the local journalists so they don’t write anything against them,” says a Sukkur-based reporter. “In return, he gets lakhs of rupees from development funds which he can blow on whatever he pleases.”

Samaa TV bureau chief Sahil Jogi, who describes Sukkur district as being like Burma for journalists, contends that of the 140 members of the Sukkur Press Club, around 60 are not really journalists. “And 90pc of those who are genuine are controlled.”

Sahil Jogi, Samaa bureau chief in Sukkur.
Sahil Jogi, Samaa bureau chief in Sukkur.

It was thus perhaps unsurprising that there were no reports about Ajay Lalwani’s murder in the local papers for the first two days. While in hospital, Ajay had named two former local administration officials, Inayat Shah and Ahsan Shah, also from the PPP, as being behind the attack on him. No posting, no appointment in the area can happen without the nod of those at the top of its feudal system.

Ajay had been receiving threats for several months, and was nominated in FIRs on allegedly false charges of robbery and terrorism. “He didn’t even know how to fire a weapon,” says his father Dilip Kumar. “But a few months ago, he had asked Ahsan and Inayat at a press conference where the local administration had spent the billions of rupees in development funds given to it. He questioned why invoices were being submitted to the government for electricity in public parks when kundas [illegal electricity connections] were being used to obtain power for lighting.”

He had also confronted senior police officials on the issue of fake encounters after the murder of university student Irfan Jatoi in one such incident. Immediately after the attack on Ajay, the SHO concerned was removed and another appointed in his place. “That’s how you spoil a case,” says a reporter. “Having one SHO at the time of the murder and another during investigation muddies the waters and ensures that responsibility gets divided.”

Although a man named Raza Shah has ostensibly confessed to the crime and spilled the beans on several others, including the man who allegedly carried out the recce and the two hitmen, a police official candidly tells Dawn: “The cops won’t dig deeper. The DC, RPO are all appointed with the nod of [Sukkur’s politician-wadera]. Who’s going to risk their posting to tell the truth?”

The IG Sindh recently appointed a top police official from another district — SSP Kashmore, Amjad Shaikh — to head the investigation. SSP Shaikh informs Dawn that the names of both individuals named by Ajay, as well as that of the SHO Saleh Pat at the time have now been included as ‘proposed accused’ in the FIR. According to him, the three men, unlike the other suspects, have not been arrested because “the police have not got substantial evidence that links them with the crime.” He adds however: “If they are guilty, they will be prosecuted.”

A New Year’s night murder

It was a little past midnight on Jan 1, 2014. In the town of Badah, Larkana district, journalist Shan Dahar was standing outside a small medical store located in a narrow lane. He had been working on an investigative story about free medicines supplied by an NGO for poor patients that were being illegally sold to local pharmacies. Suddenly a gunshot rang out. “Shan was leaning across the counter talking to me when he let out a cry and collapsed on the ground,” recalls the shopkeeper, Zulfikar Khokar. A bullet had struck him in his upper back.

Shan with his older daughter Rania Batool.
Shan with his older daughter Rania Batool.

By the time the medical superintendent got to the scene and Shan was transferred to Chandka Hospital in Larkana, the journalist had lost a considerable amount of blood. That, coupled with a gross lack of medical attention, cost Shan his life. Before he breathed his last, some nine to ten hours later, he alleged that the influential Zehri family was behind the attack. He had had several confrontations with members of the family, including over a documentary he had made about precious seals stolen from Moenjodaro museum, a crime in which he had implicated some individuals from the Zehri tribe.

As a senior journalist with 27 years’ experience, Shan’s death caused considerable agitation among media professionals and rallies were held across Sindh to demand the arrest of his killers. However, the investigation process became suspect almost straightaway. As in Ajay Lalwani’s recent murder, the sitting SHO at the time was transferred and two others were appointed to the post in quick succession by SSP Khalid Mustafa Korai. According to Shan’s colleagues, he had had several run-ins with the cop, and at a recent press conference had asked him how he could afford his lavish lifestyle on a policeman’s salary. A complaint lodged by the journalist at the thana about threats against him a few days before his death mysteriously vanished.

After first claiming that the bullet that had hit Shan was fired from 20 feet, the police revised that estimate to 40 ft and then to 250ft describing it as an accidental death due to aerial firing by revelers on New Year’s eve. No one else in Badah died in aerial firing that night; indeed, say local journalists, no death from aerial firing has ever been recorded in the area. “And the temperature was sub-zero on the night between Dec 31 and Jan 1,” says Fouzia Dahar, Shan’s sister. “Cold weather slows down a bullet. The police also claimed the bullet first hit the wall above Shan’s head, deflected and then struck him. It couldn’t have retained enough force to do that and puncture his lung.”

The medical store in Badah outside which Shan was shot.
The medical store in Badah outside which Shan was shot.

Then there was the lone eyewitness to the crime itself, Munna Qadir Kandhro, the watchman at the hospital across from the medical store, who, it is believed, told some neighbours the next day about what he had seen. He was even picked up by the police but then released on bail. “He and his family disappeared from Badah and were never seen there again,” insists Ms Dahar. “Why didn’t the police track him down?” The bloodstained jacket her brother was wearing that night is still in her possession; the police, she says, didn’t even take it for forensic examination.

No one has been prosecuted for Shan’s death despite his family’s efforts. Promising leads were not followed up, such as the fact that two Zehri brothers, Amir and Irfan, were earlier seen by several witnesses that night close to site of the shooting. A re-investigation, led by the same DIG as the one who had conducted the first one, unsurprisingly arrived at the same conclusion. The Zehri brothers still live in the same town, despite a court order that they be arrested when found.

Within walking distance of where Shan was shot is a two-room press club. A group of journalists gathered there spoke to Dawn. “We don’t know for sure whether Shan was murdered — the Zehri elders even came to the family and said they were ready to pay compensation if the investigation found the two men guilty — but the inquiry was certainly not satisfactory,” said one of them. He then added: “We can expect anything from the police. The drug trade, the gambling dens here, it all happens with their patronage.”

Physical violence is not the only way to make journalists toe the line. Zaib Ali, press club president and local bureau chief of Sindh TV reveals that when he reported on the sale of illicit liquor in Badah, his brother was arrested that night for gambling. Ali Raza of Awami Forum newspaper was picked up by police some years ago after he reported on forests being cut down, and threatened with being disposed of in a staged encounter.

Another coercive ploy is administrative in nature. Reporting on corruption can result in family members with government jobs being transferred far away. One TV reporter said his wife was a schoolteacher in Sukkur, and because the local authorities were displeased with him, she was transferred to Badin, nearly 350km away.

The rot within

There is, however, another relevant issue here — the rot within the media landscape itself. It is well known that the press in Pakistan is going through a financial crisis. Massive retrenchments have taken place and salaries slashed. That said, most district correspondents have never been paid a salary, especially in Sindhi media with the exception of one particular media house. Such a system cannot but encourage corruption in the form of news coverage for sale, or the lack of coverage, as the case may be.

Elections are a particularly lucrative time for the sale of ‘journalistic services’. “Candidates will pay anything between Rs200,000 to Rs2m for media exposure,” says a reporter. Earlier, the deal was between the reporter and the aspiring candidate. Now, with the rise in the influence of media outlet owners, the bureau chief gets the “package”. One reporter ruefully describes the bureau chief as “SSP and feudal combined”.

The ‘desk in-charge’, who functions as the gatekeeper for the news, has his own demands. “We have to transfer money from our Easypaisa account balance if we want our reports to air. It can be anything from Rs50 and Rs500, depending on the story,” reveals a journalist in Badah.

The lack of unity among journalists makes them more vulnerable to exploitation. Badah for example, a town of less than 100,000 people, has no less than four press clubs, indicating a fragmented journalist community allied with different power centres. Other small towns in the province are no different.

Certainly, journalistic integrity can still be found, but it is a luxury that only salaried correspondents, those with family wherewithal or a second job which brings in an income, can afford.

It was not always this way. The Sindhi press was in fact well known for its progressive leanings. “After the Soviet Union’s breakup in the late ‘80s, all the leftists in the province went into journalism,” says Mashooq Odhano, KTN bureau chief in Larkana. “Activists like us had studied the world before we came to journalism. We knew what democracy and human rights were.”

Mashooq Odhano, KTN bureau chief in Larkana.
Mashooq Odhano, KTN bureau chief in Larkana.

The feudals were extremely powerful then as well, but the truth carried a certain weight. It was the mushrooming of electronic media, believes the seasoned journalist, that sparked a decline, with vacancies far outstripping the supply of competent individuals who wanted to do journalism for the right reasons. As Mr Odhano says, “There used to be a romance about journalism. That is now gone.”

Nevertheless, the first step towards improving the media environment is to provide a secure environment for journalists. It has been some time that the human rights ministry drafted the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill. A fairly comprehensive piece of proposed legislation, it addresses the critical issue of impunity by setting up a seven-member commission with wide-ranging powers of investigation and redressal. Given the dire circumstances in which the media works, such legislation is urgently needed.

Header illustration by Reem Khurshid.

Systemic silencing

By Nirmal Jovial

Journalists and media companies feel the heat for being critical of the dominant ideology in India. .

ON the evening of August 8, 2020, ten women from Subhash Mohalla in North East Delhi proceeded to the Bhajanpura police station to make the police register a first information report on a complaint they had made two days before. The complaint was that some men had tried to foment communal tension in their locality. The complainants said the men had abused Muslims, tied saffron flags near a mosque and burst crackers in celebration of a ceremony for the construction of a temple at faraway Ayodhya on August 5.

Two of the women — Shaheen Khan and Shanno, an eyewitness in a 2020 Delhi riots case — and Shanno’s 16-year-old daughter went inside the police station to meet the officers. They later alleged that the officers manhandled and molested them. The officers denied the allegations.

Two journalists, Shahid Tantray of Caravan magazine and freelancer Prabhjit Singh, visited the police station. “We stayed there the whole night,” said Tantray. “We realised that something had happened to the girl — she was in shock. In the morning we spoke to her and filed a story about the molestation and assault.”

The story was published on August 10. The next day, the magazine sent a woman reporter along with Tantray and Singh to meet the women in their homes. They reached Subhash Mohalla around noon, crossing one of the two metal gates that had been installed at either end of Lane 2 after the communal riots of February 2020.

“We started our work by filming the saffron flags that had been tied in the area,” said Tantray. Soon a group of men surrounded them. “A man who identified himself as BJP general secretary asked us what we were filming. I told him that we were following up on the story about what had happened on August 5. ‘Nothing happened here,’ the man said.”

The man demanded to see Tantray’s ID card. “When I showed him the card, he [uttered a communal slur],” said Tantray. “I told him that I was there as [a reporter] and not as a Muslim, and that I do not bring my religion into my profession.” A mob was building up and the air grew tense. Sensing trouble, Tantray asked the woman reporter to leave the lane and wait outside the gates.

“I do not know what instigated the man, but he started abusing me,” said Tantray. Singh’s efforts to calm the mob proved futile, as did the efforts of two policemen who arrived on the scene half an hour later. The mob demanded that the female journalist be called back.

"We refused,” said Tantray. “Then they asked us to delete the footage from our camera. After I deleted the footage, they demanded the camera. I refused. By then several women, too, had joined the mob. One of them [pulled at] the camera pouch slung around my neck and tried to strangle me. They pushed and abused me, and punched me on my shoulders and back. It went on for one and a half hours.”

Around 4pm, more policemen arrived and they rescued Tantray and Singh. As the woman reporter tried to follow them to the police station, half a dozen men and women chased her. She ran, but stumbled and fell and was caught. “They started hitting me on my head, arms, chest and hips,” she wrote in her complaint to the police later. She ran to a policeman, who she said tried to “trivialise” the whole incident, but another policeman took her to the station. Though an FIR was registered, no arrests have been made, yet.

Tantray said it was dangerous for press freedom that mobs aligned to a certain ideology enjoyed impunity everywhere in India. “Whenever I go for reporting, I do not disclose my identity — as a Muslim and as a Kashmiri,” he said. “Had [the Subhash Mohalla mob] known that I was a Kashmiri, I would have been lynched!”

If Tantray was assaulted by non-state actors, Fahad Shah, editor of The Kashmir Walla, has encountered intimidation and harassment by the state machinery. He had gone to Punjab, along with a colleague, to write about a farmers' protest against the Central government. While returning on October 4, 2020, they were questioned at a security checkpoint at the Jawahar Tunnel on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway.

Fahad Shah.
Fahad Shah.

A security officer, wearing a black T-shirt with “Commando” written on it, asked them to show their ID cards. On seeing Shah’s name, he went to a senior officer. “I heard him saying ‘Sir, this is the person’, pointing at my ID card,” said Shah. Immediately a dozen policemen encircled the duo, pointing assault rifles at them. They were made to get out of the car and hand over their phones. A police officer asked Shah to unlock his phone.

“The officer dialled some numbers on it, using his phone as reference,” said Shah. “I asked the officer [why we were being detained,] but he did not respond.” After some time, the officer asked the duo to get into a police truck to go to the Qazigund police station. They refused to get into the truck, saying they would come by car. One of the policemen, Shah said, abused him and called him a “bastard”.
A policeman then drove them in their car to the police station. The station house officer (SHO) appeared after about 45 minutes, asked them routine questions and told them to wait for a senior officer to come.

At around 8pm, DSP Mohammad Shafi arrived at the station. “After asking for some basic details, he inquired about our qualification, implying that we did not have the necessary qualification to do journalism,” said Shah. The officer asked about their reporting in Kashmir and referred specifically to a news story Shah had done on a shootout in Damhal-Hanji Pora in Kulgam in May 2020. According to Shah, the officer warned him and his colleague to report “cautiously” about matters related to “national security”.

The questioning continued for four hours, and finally they were released at 10pm, after they signed a statement that the car and phone were returned to them intact. “Our detention was illegal, and we believe that it is in line with how journalists are routinely harassed, summoned to police stations, treated like criminals and intimidated because we report facts…. Why are we being treated like this — harassed and intimidated? I am extremely worried about the safety of my colleagues and myself,” wrote Shah in his article ‘Journalism is not a Crime’ in The Kashmir Walla.

Shah said free press was getting crushed everywhere in the world, except for a few western countries. In India, he said, censorship has been institutionalised with the new media policy in Kashmir and the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, notified on February 25, under the Information and Technology Act, 2000.

Part III of the Rules permits the government to delete, modify and block content published by digital news media. The Editors Guild of India, in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expressed concern that the new rules “can fundamentally alter how news publishers operate over the internet and undermine the freedom of the press in the country.”

Dhanya Rajendran, editor-in-chief of news portal The News Minute, said that for the past few years, only digital media could do honest journalism in India. “This is mainly because of the nature of how it works — for the advertisement revenue and all, you do not have to depend on the government much,” she said. “The government has introduced the new media rules to target these digital media organisations.”

She said there was an organised effort by different political outfits to target media organisations and journalists. “The BJP may be doing it in the most massive and organised way, but all the parties are doing it,” she said.

Rajendran said women journalists were at a greater risk than the men from online trolls and harassers. “A lot of women now know how to handle harassment,” she said. “But that does not make it any less of a problem. I think the first big step is for everyone to understand that online harassment is a real problem, especially when it is in an organised manner.” She, however, conceded that harassment of journalists and media organisations could happen in a more institutionalised manner, too — in the form of criminal suits or financial harassment by blocking revenues.

Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times, said press freedom in India stood hugely diminished. “We are all self-censoring now. [Journalists] are afraid; they may be booked for sedition; they may be booked for criminal defamation or [proceeded against under] all kinds of law,” she said. In July 2020, a criminal case was filed against her for a Facebook post condemning an attack on five non-tribal youth in Meghalaya’s Lawsohtun village. In the post, Mukhim had commented that Meghalaya was a failed state because perpetrators of attacks on non-tribal people since 1979 had never been arrested.

Patricia Mukhim.
Patricia Mukhim.

In November, the Meghalaya High Court declined to quash the criminal charges against Mukhim. It observed that she “sought to create a divide” between the tribal and non-tribal people in the state. However, in March 2021, the Supreme Court quashed the case against her. It said, “free speech of the citizens of this country cannot be stifled by implicating them in criminal cases unless such speech tends to affect public order”.

Mukhim was acquitted, but she rues that she has had to go through a very tiring legal exercise. “Once you are booked, it is such a serious process,” she said. “Your family also will go through all the trauma that you go through.”

Raihana Siddique, wife of Malayalam journalist Siddique Kappan, can relate to that. Kappan was arrested at Mathura by the Uttar Pradesh Police in October 2020, while on his way to Hathras to report on the gang rape and murder of a Dalit girl, which had triggered nationwide outrage. The journalist was booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. In the 5,000-page charge sheet, the police accuse him of criminal conspiracy to create unrest in Hathras.

The charge sheet says Kappan was involved in seeking foreign funds to incite violence in Hathras. Along with Rauf Sherif — a member of the Popular Front of India — he has been accused of receiving Rs8 million from countries in the Persian Gulf.

Siddique Kappan.
Siddique Kappan.

"He was working for Rs25,000 a month at the Malayalam news portal Azhimukham,” said Raihana. “He has two ATM cards. Both of them are with the police. Let them check if he had received a single penny in his account other than his salary.” Raihana is a homemaker. The couple has three children, with the eldest studying in class 12.

The Kerala Union of Working Journalists is supporting her fight. In an affidavit submitted in the Supreme Court in December 2020, the union stated that Kappan was “beaten with lathi and slapped” and was “mentally tortured” in the Mathura jail. On April 22, the union requested the court to transfer him to All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, citing his ill health". It stated that Kappan had "collapsed in the bathroom” and had tested positive for Covid-19. On April 30, he was shifted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi.

Raihana, however, said the media was largely silent about her husband’s plight. “Why is everyone silent? Why is everyone afraid?” she asked.

It is a question that should reverberate in media houses across the country.

Nirmal Jovial is a journalist at The Week magazine, India.

Reporting the pandemic

By Anjali Subedi

As the pandemic rages on, Nepal’s health reporters run the gauntlet.

KAILASH Joshi, a journalist from Far West Nepal, has not taken a break from his work for the past one year. Just when he thought that Covid-19, wreaking havoc worldwide, was perhaps making an exit from Nepal, it came back with a bigger roar. The country is engulfed by the second wave of the contagion, and Joshi has also been infected. The 30-year-old local of Dhangadhi tested positive for the virus on Thursday. But unlike other Covid-19 patients, Joshi cannot fully rest.

“I am in home isolation, and suffering from headache, body ache, cough and fever. But I've to keep track of stories unfolding here. I work for two media houses — a local one and another in Kathmandu,” he said over the phone on Friday morning.

Just before our conversation, Joshi dispatched stories to and He talked to the authorities at Dhangadi Covid Hospital (Seti Zonal Hospital), collected data, figured out the scenario and reported how the lack of ventilators and ICU beds are killing people.

When the virus had just made an entry in February/March last year, Joshi was among the most active journalists reporting from the highly sensitive Indo-Nepal border of Mahendranager. As millions of Nepalis employed in India were returning home, Joshi had to chase those who escaped quarantine centres, and evaded police checking and other health protocols. “It was a mess,” he says. He had to document what was happening at quarantine centres, isolation wards and hospitals. Moving from one place to another cost a lot. Phone calls and internet charges pinched him. And the media he was working for was facing a financial crisis.

“Even with no money in your pocket, you have to work harder. If you file ten stories a month in normal times, you have to file more than double during the pandemic. Sometimes you’d question yourself if this is all worth it!” he lamented.

But the sense of responsibility kept him going. “And it has been my strength so far.”

Health reporters at work. Photo: FNJ, Nepal
Health reporters at work. Photo: FNJ, Nepal

Sadly, many other health journalists in the country can relate to Joshi’s situation. Some of them are from Kathmandu, working for big media houses.

“I do not have a high morale as before,” said Fatima Banu, who works for Kantipur daily. “In the initial days of the pandemic, we worked hard. Lockdown was imposed and travelling around became tough. You couldn’t escape the duty, but you did not have enough facilities and support,” she added.

Fatima did a number of ground reporting assignments. The police detained her for hours several times for not producing an identity card issued by the Information Department. And because she didn’t have a personal vehicle, she either walked to her destination or just got in when the ambulance and hospital staff offered her a lift. Reporting stories gave her satisfaction, but the hassles were painful. Fatima gave her best and grabbed the prestigious Barbara Foundation Covid-19 Distinguished Award that included a cash prize of Rs 50,000. This helped her cover expenses for a visor, masks, gloves and sanitiser.

According to longtime health reporter Pabitra Sunar, the pandemic is a tough time for all frontline workers, but only health reporters have been deprived of incentives. “The police and health professionals are entitled to a certain relief. The volume of our work has increased manifold, but our hard work often goes unseen,” she remarked.

Sunar says that during her decade-long experience of health reporting, she was most active in 2020. She used taxis rather than public vehicles while travelling, opted for better quality outlets for snacks and used all other safety measures during reporting assignments. And all this did not come for free. On the other hand, her salary was slashed by 30 per cent in view of the Covid-19 crisis, and Sunar had to struggle to meet her needs.

“[This challenge] has befallen all journalists, many even lost their job. As health reporters, our job was secure, but we lacked incentives,” she said.

According to the Department of Information and Broadcasting, there are 7,807 registered print media, and 2,325 online media in Nepal. Similarly, there are 1,127 FM and 202 Television channels. According to the Federation of Nepali Journalists, there are over 8,000 journalists across the country; it is not known how many of them are health reporters. The Health Journalist Forum Nepal has 73 active members who are all based in Kathmandu.

“You hardly find beat reporters outside Kathmandu. They have to report on almost all issues,” said Pram Prasad Pandey, president of the Forum. “The job of health reporters has been tough. They lack resources and motivation. We tried to support them, but we haven’t been very successful,” he added.

Nepal recorded its first Covid-19 case in January 2020. The government then imposed a four-month nationwide lockdown in March 2020. As things were getting back to normal, the second wave of the pandemic hit the country. The government has imposed a prohibitory order in select cities from April 29 to May 13.

The writer is a reporter for Republica.

Dire straits

By Zyma Islam

The pandemic has left the Bangladeshi fourth estate riddled with labour law violations.

Illustration by Noor Us Safa Anik.
Illustration by Noor Us Safa Anik.

MONTHS and months of unpaid salaries, unending unpaid leaves, unpaid termination benefits and penalised unions — this is what the pandemic has left the news industry with.

An introspection into the fourth estate reveals that those tasked with speaking up against violations have been the victims of gross labour rights violations themselves.

When a legacy newspaper with ruling party alignment terminated 36 people on March 15, 2021, it led to a messy series of events. First, the ones terminated claimed that they were all members of a trade union inside the newspaper, and they had been penalised for unionising.

“We formed a union because two years ago we wanted to pressurise the establishment to pay the arrears of the previous years. At the time of termination we were demanding that we receive increments — there had been no increments in the newspaper for eight years,” claimed Bivash Barai, a terminated journalist who was the head of the union unit. “We were also demanding that those not on the wage board be regularised and brought back under the board. We gave a letter to the establishment on March 4, 2021 stating our demands.”

Thirty-six of them got a termination letter 11 days after, stating they were not needed at the newspaper. On April 11, they organised a protest in front of the office. “The gate was closed and there were police in front. Inside, there were many people sitting facing the gate armed with rods — but we had no idea who they were.” said Bivash.

Suddenly all hell broke loose. “When we were not being allowed into the building, the protesters threw small rocks at the gate. The people inside retaliated by attacking the protesters with rods,” said Shaju Ahmed, a former subeditor at the newspaper. He was attacked from behind, and hit on the head several times, drawing blood.

“I am a heart patient, so I could not run. They kept saying they would break my legs so that I cannot do journalism’,” said Shaju who had worked at the newspaper for over seven years. As blood flooded his eyes, the 47-year-old slipped into a haze. “I fell to the ground and lay there. They beat me all over my body. My left leg had a prior surgery — that was affected more. I still cannot walk properly. I have headaches all the time, and often feel dizzy.”.

At another prominent newspaper owned by a leading industrial group, senior employees were put on unpaid ‘leave’ on June 10 last year, leave that has still not ended. “Twenty-nine of us were given letters on June 10,” said a former senior reporter of the newspaper requesting anonymity. This increased later to about 50 to 60. Seeing that the news organisation was neither terminating him lawfully, nor asking him to come back to work, he recently handed in his resignation, thereby forfeiting the termination benefits he was entitled to.

“They did not terminate us, so I only received my provident fund, but not the service benefit,” said Naushad Jamil, a 37-year-old senior reporter who worked at the organisation for the last 11 years. “This is a violation of the labour law.”

At a slightly smaller newspaper owned by a social services organisation, journalists have not been getting paid for months at a time. “I was terminated in April 2020. Those of us who were part of the union were terminated first — six of us first, then six more people. I was the Dhaka Union of Journalists unit chief at the newspaper,” said Motlu Mallik who used to be the chief reporter. “When we left in April, they had fallen behind on salaries by two months which went on for a further three months. They cleared dues of five months at a time, but then they stopped paying again for eight months.” Currently the employees are not getting a single taka, informed Mallik.

In addition, the sacked journalists had to protest to get their rightful service benefits, he said. “We formed human chains on April 29, May 3 and June 4 last year in front of the office and the gate of the foundation that owns us,” said Mallik. Only six of the 19 terminated have gotten their service benefits, he added.

Illustration by Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo.
Illustration by Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo.

While all is less than rosy in the city centre, journalists working outside Dhaka fared far, far worse.

Al-Mamun Jibon, a reporter from Thakurgaon was served a double blow when he was sued under the Digital Security Act (DSA) and his salary stopped at the same time. He used to work for a relatively smaller newsroom, and on March 26, received a letter saying his honorarium would be stopped. “It said that if I still wish to contribute news, I am welcome to, but that I would not be paid any more,” said Jibon.

Then on April 15, he was hit with a DSA case for putting up a social media post about how the administration’s mismanagement led to a surge in Covid-19 cases. “Since then I had to be on the run for fear of arrest, until I got bail on Sept 2. Meanwhile my earning was nil from the newsroom,” said Jibon.

Another 34 year-old reporter from Sunamganj, who requested anonymity, spoke of being taken on by a large newspaper in December 2019, but of having received his contract only in March of this year. “I have worked with them since December 2019. I have not gotten any recruitment/contract letter since then. I sent three to four current news reports every day, plus three to four special stories every month. In addition I brought them ads worth Tk70,000. I only got a contract letter last month, and hopefully will start getting a salary soon,” he said.

Led by Dr Saydia Gulrukh, a group of researchers from Drik — a Dhaka-based multimedia organisation — interviewed 100 journalists between October 2020 to January 2021 and found several violations across the board.

“Journalists have been found to have been terminated with no notice period at all at newsrooms of all sizes,” stated the report, a draft of which was shared with this correspondent. It adds that while retrenchment is legally allowed, the worker must be given a month’s notice period.

“Terminated journalists are facing a lot of difficulty extracting the gratuity and provident fund which is rightfully owed to them,” said the report. Owners also hire journalists but fail to provide recruitment contracts until long after they have started working, it added.

A sense of despair and hopelessness about the future was the one prevalent sentiment that was common among all the journalists interviewed by The Daily Star.

“Will this report change anything?” questioned Jamil. The answer to that unfortunately, is not known.